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New Hope for Better Internet Access in Africa

  • Jill Craig

Ivorian youth checking an electoral commission website in a cyber cafe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 4, 2012.

Ivorian youth checking an electoral commission website in a cyber cafe in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 4, 2012.

A non-profit technology company based in Kenya has created a wireless Internet router that it says will help people living in places where electricity is spotty and Internet service is unreliable.

Founded in early 2008, Ushahidi is known primarily for its open-source software applications, but is now launching its first piece of hardware, called the BRCK. One of the BRCK's designers says the "backup generator for the Internet" was created for anyone looking for reliable Internet use and will be particularly useful in Africa and other underdeveloped places.

Jonathan Shuler, Ushahidi’s head of Field Research and Development, was one of the designers. He recalled that he was visiting Juba around the time of the 2011 referendum, which allowed him to incorporate some of South Sudan’s technical and practical needs into the design.

“I was thinking about Juba and my time there a lot while we were designing it. It’s dust-proof, it’s weather-proof, the power supply is really resistant to under and over voltage, which is a huge problem there,” he said.

“You can leave it plugged in and it’s not going to fry the power supply as easily. And when the power does drop, you’ll have at least eight hours of battery life. On top of that, it charges well off of solar, which actually not a lot of high-end electronics do. And then the radios – the Wi-Fi and the cellular radios are really nuanced and have really good reception.”

The wireless router can connect to the Internet via Ethernet, WiFi, 3G and 4G networks, and can switch its source as needed if the connection dies, according to Ushahidi's website. Each BRCK contains 16 GB of storage and can sync and hold data from Dropbox, connected devices or other apps.

Ushahidi is working with Kickstarter, which calls itself the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects, in order to raise enough money to start manufacturing. Ushahidi needs to raise $125,000 by June 4.

If it reaches this goal, Ushahidi plans to distribute and sell the first BRCKs before the end of the year, at a cost of roughly $200 per unit.

Dut Acol Dedut, an IT specialist with South Sudan's Ministry of Telecommunications, has read about the BRCK and is optimistic about its potential for South Sudan.

“Yes, yes, it definitely can be beneficial," he said. "Not only the power issue, the other issue about it is about the other ISPs, the way they have designed – their network, they have not been well-designed. Or their coverage is not really that great. So every now and then we have problems with the networks, with the networks going down,” he said.

“So this would be a solution, it would be another option that people might have. So instead of having connectivity to one provider, you can have connectivity to two or three providers," he added.

And the BRCK seems to also have the potential to help solve the issue of charging phones, especially in rural areas.

“It’ll also be able to power things externally,” Shuler said. “It’ll have USB out[let]s, so you can connect your hard drive to it, you could charge your phone off it, and we also have GTIO pins, which are basically like the connection at the bottom of your iPhone, lots of tiny little pins, and those will be able to power external hardware.”

The Internet continues to rapidly gain more users in Africa. From 2008 to 2012, Internet bandwidth available to the continent’s one billion people grew twenty-fold, according to a 2012 World Bank report.